THE other night i caught grant lee phillips at what i still think of as the "new" largo. i know the phrase "underrated singer-songwriter" is almost always redundant, but it has a special meaning for phillips. the leader of a critically acclaimed but never bestselling 90s band, grant lee buffalo -- who played a kind of sweeping americana that was out of step with everything around them in the LA scene -- he has gone on to a solo career that for my money is at least as interesting as the music he was making in the mid-90s, when rolling stone voted him "best male singer." (Here he is on youtube.)
it was also one of the strangest musical nights of my life. (hang on.)
in the candle-lit "little room" at the largo, where phillips performed, the intimate, emotionally direct songs took up all the space. i was struck by how strong his voice is, with its shades of john lennon maybe a touch of hank williams and something all his own -- it's not studio effects, the dude really has pipes. and his music comes from dylan and neil young without really sounding like either one.
most striking, though, was phillips' showmanship and wit. it takes a lot to keep an audience entertained with just a guitar, voice and a host of mostly dark songs about love gone bad. but grant lee is better than anyone this side of richard thompson at matching brooding/ doomy songs with great between-song banter and a weirdly understated sense of humor.
for a sense of how good grant lee can be, check out the song "folding" on his first solo LP, "ladies love oracle," which he made with his frequent collaborator, largo's brilliant/eccentric jon brion. with what sounds like a pedal steel guitar and a harmonica, he plays a kind of country blues about that moment when you decide you have to break up with someone. with his poker metaphor -- okay, i fold -- he captures the sense of resignation when you wake up from "the colorful lie." i'd print the lyrics but like any great song it works with all its elements, including one of GLP's best vocal performance.
grant lee encored by bringing over fiddler sara watkins, prev of nickel creek, who'd been playing at largo's main theater... somehow i'd missed nickel creek during their years together, but that girl can play the fiddle and has a breathtaking old-school country voice. she's got a solo record next month i'm curious to hear.
the weirdness came from the openers -- the dude who played the hippie school-counselor on "freaks and geeks" (who i guess you'd call a comedian), offering bizarre monologues and a weird musical number, and a duo that played theramin and vibraphone to earnest tunes like bowie's "major tom." tho the theramin solos went on a bit too long, this oddball mix took the pretension out of an evening dedicated to sitting in the dark watching a singer songwriter. somehow it all worked.
tho i cant wait for the place to get its bar set up.
Photo credit: Flickr 550